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Prue Leith’s 2,200-Mile Road Trip From California to Florida

Plantation Alley, along the Great Mississippi Road, with its half a dozen “Gone With the Wind”-style estates, now open to the public, swept me away. The most beautiful of them was Oak Alley, with its avenue of 250-year-old Southern live oaks, their branches creating a vast green tunnel. But I couldn’t understand how the magnificent trees were obviously much older than the house. It turns out that these oaks are native to the area, and had once grown all over the estate. When the house was built in 1836, enslaved workers were made to dig up 28 of the huge 60- to 70-year-old trees, with root systems equal to the size of their canopies, and replant them in an avenue down to the Mississippi levee.

The Great Mississippi Road eventually leads to New Orleans and the famous French Quarter, with its balconies of elaborate wrought iron — a daytime picture of Victorian good taste. We, ignorant Brits, had no idea that at night on Bourbon Street, that “good taste” became the flavor of daiquiris, pizza and hot dogs against a backdrop of bands belting out rock ’n’ roll, small children beating dustbins, grown-ups playing jazz, and the raucous din of drunken tourists until 3 a.m.

But I liked the party atmosphere, and I’m mighty partial to a daiquiri, so we set off on a pub crawl. I now know that the secret to a good mango daiquiri is fresh mango, and not bottled mango syrup. And the next morning, after one too many mango delights and little sleep, I learned that shrimp and grits, with a good grating of cheese, is the perfect hangover cure.

Florida

Our road trip ended, as it had started, at a beach. Only this one was a mercifully far cry from the Venice boardwalk.

We had rented a house for the week in the small Florida Panhandle community of Seacrest Beach, on the Emerald Coast along Highway 30A. This eight-mile strip — a kind of manufactured, perfectly designed modern Eden — consists of 16 neighborhoods on white-sand beaches between Pensacola and Panama City. Developments with names like Rosemary Beach, Seagrove Beach, Alys Beach, Grayton Beach and WaterColor share the perfect sands and the desired 30A address.

Everyone rides around on bikes, and perfectly tanned mothers gossip over kombucha and wheatgrass at sidewalk cafes. Even the children look straight out of an upmarket catalog.

Friends of friends, on holiday, invited us to their Thanksgiving dinner — turkey with all the trimmings, sweet potatoes, pecan pie and ice cream. In thanking them, I said something about the pleasure of such generosity, family closeness and their children’s politeness. Our host laughed. It’s because we’re from the South, she said.

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